The hero whisperer
THERE’S A T-SHIRT THAT’S POPULAR AT COMICS and science-fiction conventions that reads, in the famous Star Wars font, JOSS WHEDON IS MY MASTER NOW. The line comes from an online comic strip called PvP, and the implication is something on the order of “George Lucas used to be the gold standard for pure authentic nerd awesomeness, but he betrayed us by making that crappy prequel trilogy. The torch has been passed. Now I’m putting my faith in Joss Whedon.”
Whedon, 47, is probably best known as the creator of the cult fantasy-horror series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as TV’s beloved but short-lived Firefly and Dollhouse, and his latest project is the superhero colossus The Avengers, which he wrote and directed for the big screen. More than anybody else — more than J.J. Abrams, more than Steven Spielberg, more than Peter Jackson — Whedon is the voice of the fan in Hollywood. He’s the outsider who lives and works on the inside, in the heart of the heartless studio system. His rapid-fire, highly self-conscious dialogue is instantly recognizable to nerds as our mother tongue. He’s what we have instead of the Lorax: he speaks for the geeks. “I will never put something out that I don’t believe in,” he says. “Everything I’ve ever worked on, I loved on some level. And yes, I’m including Waterworld.”
The Avengers is the first of this summer’s ultra-expensive, apex-predator blockbuster movies. It’s the Traveling Wilburys of superhero franchises, with a cast of characters including many who have carried tentpole movies on their own: Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Captain America. Whedon is a cult figure, but he’s still an odd choice to direct The Avengers for two reasons. One, he’s directed only one other feature film — Serenity, released in 2005, based on his science-fiction western Firefly. And two, Whedon is a known subversive. His modus operandi is to undermine the status quo and aggressively deconstruct whatever genre he’s working in. Marvel has handed over its icons to an iconoclast. With a $220 million budget on the line, it’s a bit of a high-wire act. Can Whedon beat the system and serve it at the same time? Who is Joss Whedon’s master now?
Buffy was a TV show that over seven seasons inverted, transformed, demolished and otherwise radically altered just about every convention sacred to the genres of horror and fantasy. At the same time that Harry Potter was massively popularizing fantasy, Whedon was forcibly evolving it, in prime time, on network television. In Buffy Summers, he gave us a damsel who wasn’t in distress; she inflicted distress on anybody who messed with her. He had his heroine sleep with vampires, die, lose interest in her work. Two of the show’s female characters fell in love and became a couple. Whedon shot an episode with almost no dialogue; he shot one without sound; he shot one that was entirely sung through.
Buffy was fantasy-horror’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon moment, its Rite of Spring. It tore down everything and made the rubble more strangely thrilling than the building had been. Whedon didn’t transcend the genre he worked in; he didn’t produce a tarted-up arty version of it. Instead he re-engineered it to say things nobody knew it could say. Buffy was smart and moving and exhilarating and challenging — all those things that high art is supposed to be. Plus, it had lots of ass kicking.
In person, Whedon is an affable, ever so slightly wired presence, with close-cropped red hair and a prominent forehead that makes him look a little bit brainiacal: eating lunch at a restaurant in Santa Monica, Calif., he could be a supervillain in deep cover in a blazer, jeans and a faded Sesame Street T-shirt. He’s an iconoclast, but he has deep roots in Hollywood. In fact, he may be the only living third-generation screenwriter: his father wrote for Dick Cavett and The Golden Girls, and his grandfather was a writer for Andy Griffith and Dick Van Dyke.
But it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Whedon would carry on the family business. “My family — we are very much a clan, we are all of an ilk, but I was not close to them,” he says. “The Scooby gang [as Buffy and her associates are known], the crew of [the starship] Serenity, even the Avengers — they are found families. You make them yourself. That has always been my idea of family.” Whedon studied film at Wesleyan, and he loved just about every art form there is. It took him a while to choose. “All I knew was that I was going to do something other than make an honest living.”
Hollywood’s radical insurgent began his career in 1989, writing for mainstream TV — first for Roseanne, then Parenthood. He went on to become something of a pop-culture Zelig, contributing to the scripts of Toy Story (which won an Oscar), Waterworld (which didn’t), Speed, Twister, Alien: Resurrection and X-Men. In the past five years he has directed episodes of The Office and Glee. In April he was in the unusual position of having two movies premiering in Los Angeles on consecutive days: Cabin in the Woods, an inside-out, meta-horror flick he co-wrote and produced, followed by The Avengers.
Yet it hasn’t always been easy for an idiosyncratic talent like Whedon to work within the big-studio system. The Buffy spinoff Angel ran for five seasons, but Firefly, which in its way was as brilliantly innovative as Buffy, was canceled after 11 episodes. His next series, Dollhouse, lasted barely two seasons. He worked on a big-screen version of Wonder Woman that was never green-lit. “I went from a very prolific time to a time that had a lot of fits and starts,” Whedon says. “And I myself had some fits.” His biggest success lately has been his Web series Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, starring Neil Patrick Harris, which Whedon funded himself.
“I don’t think of myself as a quality guy, like, ‘I’m going to make highbrow art!’” Whedon says. “At the same time, I don’t think of myself as a schlockmeister. I feel like — I don’t know. Maybe I haven’t looked hard enough, but apart from the Internet, I don’t know where I belong.”
Marvel didn’t recruit Whedon to direct The Avengers, nor did Whedon pitch himself for the job. He was called in to take a look at the script and give the studio notes. He did. “It’s fun for me to sort of work over a puzzle and then walk away,” he says. “And then in the back of my mind was, Is there a story here that I would want to tell?”
The Avengers was one of the first comics Whedon read, when he was 11, so he knew coming in that it was a tricky proposition. “It’s a very odd comic and always has been,” he says. “They took their most popular comics and, for some reason, Wasp and Ant Man and threw them together into a team. For absolutely no reason.” There’s no deep backstory there. They’re not like the X-Men or the Fantastic Four. The Avengers consist of a god, a supersoldier, a guy with a really wicked flying exoskeleton, a guy who’s really good at shooting arrows and so on. If anything, the script came burdened with a Babel of clashing story lines from other movies, not to mention a raft of A-list actors who are used to being the center of attention: Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Samuel L. Jackson.
But Whedon went in looking for a story, and he found one, and he wrote a memo about it. “He thought it should be a war movie. He used The Dirty Dozen as an example,” says Louis D’Esposito, a co-president of Marvel Studios. “He loved the cast and the characters — tortured, strange people that he felt he could write. And then at the end of the e-mail, I remember him writing, ‘These are my Avengers. Some assembly still required.’ It blew us away.”
Whedon’s story had to do with the group’s two spiritual opposites: Captain America, a.k.a. Steve Rogers, the earnest all-American square, and Iron Man, a.k.a. Tony Stark, the louche, ironic wiseass. “It was a story about broken people,” Whedon explains. “It was a story about what we’ve lost that we used to have culturally, in terms of this sense of community, this sense of helping each other, this sense of self-sacrifice. We went from the world of Steve Rogers to the world of Tony Stark. I’ve described myself in this process as a Tony Stark who wishes he was Steve Rogers. That tension within me is going to be the tension between them.”
IF YOU WANT THE CLOSEST THING TO actually seeing the gears turn in Whedon’s brain, watch him break down a character. Most superhero movies have one or two main characters; The Avengers has at least eight, so if any one of them is in less than perfect focus, the movie’s just going to be a blurry mess. Take, for example, Bruce Banner and his alter ego, the Hulk. The movies have already taken two shots at him, in Hulk (2003) and The Incredible Hulk (2008), and neither one was a hit. Whedon frames the problem succinctly: “The Hulk is a very hard character to make a movie about because he’s not a superhero. He’s a werewolf.” In a way, the Hulk is a microcosm of the Avengers — a man divided against himself.
So Whedon and Ruffalo, who plays the Hulk, went back to the last time the character really worked onscreen, which was in the 1970s TV series also called The Incredible Hulk. “We wanted to go with a Bruce Banner who isn’t self-obsessed,” Whedon says. “When Bruce Banner spends all his time trying to cure himself, he becomes that whiny guy that’s getting in the way of your Hulk movie.” So instead Ruffalo plays him like a recovering addict who’s trying to get on with his life; meanwhile, his teammates need the Hulk’s strength and Banner’s scientific expertise, but they’re terrified of his anger. “Is he a superhero or a monster?” Whedon says. “He’s both.”
When you watch The Avengers, you can see how badly Marvel needed someone like Whedon. With that many moving parts, it’s like eight movies at once, and only a mad pop-culture savant like Whedon could have taken it on. What he doesn’t do is take it apart. Whedon, the great deconstructor of genre, does the last thing you’d expect: he plays the movie straight.
Which, he argues, is the riskiest thing he could have done with it. “All I’ve ever wanted to do is see the things onscreen that I wanted to see as a fan,” he says. “I don’t need to go in and say, The Avengers needs to be rethought! In fact, I would say that the radical thing about this movie is that it is enormously old-fashioned. It takes the idea of heroism that’s being deconstructed in things like Kick-Ass and Watchmen and even The Dark Knight and says, ‘You know? These guys are dope.’ Yes, there is moral ambiguity about why they do what they do. But there’s no ambiguity about the fact that we desperately need them. And when push comes to shove, these guys are really good at shoving.” In the end, the movie is Joss Whedon’s master. He serves its best interests above all others, and fortunately its interests — and his, and those of the studio, and those of the fans — are aligned.
Incredibly, Whedon already has yet another film in postproduction, a larky low-budget take on Much Ado About Nothing that he shot in a month at his house with a cast of Whedon regulars. He seems to thrive on work the way other people thrive on play. Whedon describes the experience as “literally the happiest I’ve ever been.” But Shakespeare aside, he’s not preparing to abandon genre movies for greener, more culturally respectable pastures. “I love genre,” he says. “I love fantasy. I love it more than anything else. I love it because of the scope and the chance to talk about humanity in a way that is very, very close to the heart but not wearing the same skin. So you don’t just say, ‘Oh, this is how you feel when …’ Instead, you give it to people in a way that they can internalize it and realize it. And that’s extraordinary.”
It’s not lost on Whedon that with The Avengers, he’s pouring a huge amount of thought and craft and time and effort into a film that will never win an Oscar — that will get, at best, only a big pile of money and the special pat on the back that critics reserve for an exquisitely wrought popcorn movie. But he genuinely doesn’t seem to care. Whedon’s position is that there’s nothing worth saying that can’t be said with fantasy. “So you’d like me to write something realistic?” he asks rhetorically. “Like The Odyssey? Or Hamlet? Or A Christmas Carol? For genre to be ghettoized in the minds of the big thinkers means that they’re not thinking big enough. I’m never going to stop telling stories that have to do with helplessness, that have to do with empowerment. There’s always going to be some element of the government conspiracy, because people are manipulated every day and they never even notice it. I’m never going to stop wanting to talk about leadership. These are themes I’m going to come back to again and again.” He pauses for breath. “And generally speaking, those themes are going to be sung or they’re going to be flying through space, because I’m also a 10-year-old. And I’ve got no problem with that.”
Buffy was smart, moving, challenging — all the things high art is supposed to be. Plus, it had lots of ass kicking
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER
The cult hit. TV has never been the same
A Buffy spinoff about a vampire with a soul
The sci-fi epic aired only 11 episodes
A two-season futuristic take on slavery
DR HORRIBLE’S SING-ALONG BLOG
Another cult hit. With a lovable villain
CABIN IN THE WOODS
Meta-horror, still alive at the box office
Whedon, at his writing studio in Santa Monica, Calif., figured out how to team up Thor and Captain America
Expertly aligned Whedon’s Avengers include, from left, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson)
By Lev Grossman